Out ‘barihunk’ Lee Poulis makes FWO debut, ratcheting up the sex appeal of ‘Pearl Fishers’


THE OPERA AIN’T OVER | Lee Poulis, center, goes pec-for-pec with Sean Panikkar, right, is FWO’s ‘The Pearl Fishers.’ (Photo Karen Almond)

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 1.36.10 PMThere’s a cliché (we won’t repeat it here) about the opera that, frankly, just isn’t true anymore — at least not the way it used to be. Indeed, maybe we should rewrite it: The opera isn’t over until the buff (often gay!) guy sings.

That’s increasingly the case, as represented at Dallas Opera recently with The Barber of Seville’s dashing Nathan Gunn and Alek Sharder, and currently in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Set in a Polynesian wonderland, it stars hunky tenor Sean Panikkar and delicious baritone Lee Poulis as island hotties who — purely for the sake of historical accuracy — spend most of the show shirtless. Hubba-hubba.

Poulis, who is openly gay, brings a hearty physicality to the role that has tongues both wagging and panting. (There are two more performances of The Pearl Fishers — an April 27 matinee and the May 2 finale.)

“Lee brings a wonderful, natural masculinity to [the role of] Zurga that is equally sympathetic as it is threatening,” says John de los Santos, the gay stage director of the production.

We got a few minutes to ask Poulis about being shirtless for several hours each night, as well as how he feels about being considered a “barihunk” (sexy baritone) and how he finally made it to Bass Hall.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Voice: What brought you to the Fort Worth Opera for your debut?  Poulis: I first sang for Darren Woods [FWO’s general director] in 2003 while I was a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera. Darren has followed my career since then and has actually been trying to get me here for a while. I’ve wanted to sing here for just as long. But a singer has to be available when the right role comes along. There were three years that I lived in Germany, which was great for singing in Europe but put a bit of a wrench into my being able to sing often in the U.S. I’m certainly happy to be back home.

Tell us about your role in The Pearl Fishers.  I play Zurga, the chief of a pearl fishing village on the coast of Sri Lanka. My character experiences a wide spectrum of human emotions through the opera. First he’s honored and proud to be chosen village leader, then he’s overjoyed at his best friend’s return after many years, then he leads a village spiritual ceremony of sorts, then later he sentences his best friend and the woman he loves to death for a terrible betrayal, then he regrets it deeply but cannot reverse the punishment, then he saves their lives by sacrificing his own, and finally he dies happy knowing they have escaped safely. You really can’t beat that kind of drama. And I get to sing all of it!

What excites you about this show?  The music is gorgeous, the dancing is powerful, the setting is magical, and the singing is virtuosic. Each of the roles allows the singer to really show what they’ve got. My role has a huge vocal range and goes a full step higher, to an A, than what a baritone would normally sing. There are also many powerful choruses and the orchestra is oozing with expression. This all adds up to being a fantastic opera, if you ask me.

Do you have a significant other? I do.

How do you juggle a relationship with the gypsy lifestyle of an opera singer? He’s in tech, not opera, which is great! It’s a juggling act that we have learned and now enjoy. There are so many ways to stay close these days even when you are apart. When I’m home, I’m usually not working, so we spend time together then. And when I’m away he visits when he can, which has thankfully always worked out. Right after our time apart we spend a lot of time together, which is always incredible!

Of course, the Barihunks.com website is a must for gay opera fans. You are on it: Does that make you proud or embarrass you?  I am on it, and I’m flattered to be included. Anything that makes opera just a little bit more exciting is a good thing. Physical appearance is part of every other type of entertainment, so I think opera can allow some of that, too.

You get to be shirtless a lot in the show — dream come true or just part of the job? How much do you work out to stay in shape for those scenes?  It’s fun and it’s also part of the job. I can’t say I’m in better shape now just because of Pearl Fishers. I like staying fit and always enjoy going to the gym.


This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2014.